How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist?


I’ve been wanting to write about the number of New Testament Manuscripts for a while, but I haven’t been able to find the types of resource I thought would be available. In my article What is the Gregory-Aland Numbering System?, I showed the most common system scholars use to track Greek New Testament manuscripts and fragments, but there are probably many fragments which haven’t been submitted to the organization which assigns the numbers.

Four challenges face anyone hoping to estimate the number of NT [New Testament] manuscripts: (1) databases do not always reflect new discoveries; (2) most databases do not include the many manuscripts in private collections; (3) most databases do not include the scrolls; and (4) most databases do not account for manuscripts that date from the Renaissance or later.1

As manuscripts  and fragments are discovered (Where are Biblical Manuscripts Found?), they can be submitted to Institute for New Testament Textual Research, in Munich, Germany. The Institute verifies the authenticity of the manuscript or fragment, then assigns a new Gregory-Aland (GA) number and enters the information into the K-Liste (What is the Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments?).

In Greek alone, there are more than 5,600 manuscripts today. Many of these are fragmentary, especially the older ones, but the average Greek NT [New Testament] MS [manuscript] is over 450 pages long. Altogether, there are more than 2.6 million pages of text, leaving hundreds of witnesses for every book of the NT.2

It may seem strange, but the number of manuscripts with Gregory-Aland numbers can go down. Sometimes several fragments of a manuscript may be found at different times or in different locations, and each fragment may be given a number. When scholars realize the fragments are actually part of the same manuscript, they’re combined, often (but not always) into the first number manuscript. A search of the K-Liste using the filter “Former GA” shows 371 fragments. For example:

  • Papyrus P11 = P11 + P14
  • Uncial (Majuscule) 070 = 070 + 0110 + 0124 + 0178 + 0179 + 0180 + 0190 + 0191 + 0193 + 0202
  • Minuscule 2936 = 2936 + 2764
  • Lectionary L2361 = L2361 + L954

Unfortunately, the are other reasons why the number of existing manuscripts with Gregory-Aland numbers can go down. Some manuscripts have been poorly stored for decades, or centuries, and have deteriorated to the point they can’t be read. Some manuscripts simply get lost while in storage. Some have been destroyed in fires, or have been stolen.

As you can understand, it’s not really possible to get an exact number of existing manuscripts. In my research, I’ve frequently found references to “over 5,000 Greek manuscripts”, with the official number on the K-Liste at 5,90434, but that number includes the manuscripts which have been combined, ones which have been destroyed and the ones which are simply missing. As mentioned above, there’s an unknown number of manuscripts which haven’t been submitted for a Gregory-Aland number.

Although I’ve seen several resources which attempt to count the Greek New Testament manuscripts, there doesn’t appear to be standard numbering systems for other languages. Without standard numbers, scholars can have a difficult time determining how many manuscripts exist, when they were created or where to locate them. There are only 6 known Gothic manuscripts, which are probably easy for scholars to track, but an estimated 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts can prove difficult.

The best resource I could find which even tries to provide information about ancient manuscripts in different languages is the book Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell5. The total they came up with is 27,336. The authors use information from many different sources, so I don’t know if there is consistency in the way the manuscripts are counted. Some of these numbers are just educated guesses, not actual counts of manuscripts. I don’t know how accurate this information is, but this is the best I could find.6

New Testament Manuscripts Languages

The New Testament manuscripts and fragments in these charts are only the ones which have been cataloged by scholars. Estimates of uncataloged manuscripts are in the tens of thousands. They’re owned by private collectors,  churches, monasteries, convents, museums and libraries. It is practically impossible to know how many New Testament manuscripts actually exist, but it it’s a very large number.

Resources

  • Brannan, Rick. New Testament Manuscript Explorer (Logos Bible Software, version 8.8; NTME 2015) (Logos)
  • Jones, Clay. The Bibliographical Test Updated (CRI; Oct 1, 2013) Accessed 16-Nov-2019.
  • McDowell, Josh D. and Clay Jones. The Bibliographical Test (Equip.org, 2014; PDF) 12. Accessed 30-Jun-2019.
  • McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) Chapter 3: Is the Testament Historically Reliable?, Section III. The Bibliographical Test for the Reliability of the New Testament, Counting and Dating the Early New Testament Manuscripts (Amazon)
  • Wilkins, Don and Edward D. Andrews. The Text of the New Testament: The Science and Art of Textual Criticism (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2017; Kindle) Page 90. (Amazon)

Footnotes

  1. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 47. (Amazon)
  2. Wallace, Daniel B. (Editor) Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011) 27. (Amazon) (Logos)
  3. Papyrus 140; Uncials (Majuscules) 323; Minuscules 2953; Lectionaries 2488
  4. K-Liste (University of Munster, Germany) Accessed 16-Nov-2019.
  5. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) Chapter 3: Is the Testament Historically Reliable?, Section III. The Bibliographical Test for the Reliability of the New Testament, Counting and Dating the Early New Testament Manuscripts (Amazon)
  6. New Testament Manuscript Languages

    LanguageManuscripts
    Armenian3325
    Coptic3000
    Ethiopian600
    Georgian89
    Gothic6
    Greek5856
    Latin (Old)110
    Latin (Vulgate)10000
    Slavic4000
    Syriac350
    Total27336
    © BibleQuestions.info
    Resource: McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) Pg. 47-53

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  1. […] – 500,000. Why is there such a big discrepancy? With over 5,000 New Testament manuscripts6, no one has actually reviewed every word of every manuscript looking for variants, so the numbers […]

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